Money dominates conversation as Minnesota legislators prepare to begin their 2013 session at noon today.
It is such a dominant part of the session that when caught rushing to a midday Monday appointment, Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, could not think of an important non-budget issue. In fact, Marquart said he has told fellow state representatives that the budget is so important that they should not consider issues such as gay marriage and gun control this year.
Down the hall and around the corner in the State Office Building, Rep.-elect Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, sat with a resident of his southwestern Twin Cities area and just came up with one non-budget issue: A provision that would help police warn domestic violence victims if a partner’s actions could become life threatening.
“First and foremost is the budget,” said Rep. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, who will become House majority leader when the new crop of lawmakers is sworn in today.
The state Constitution requires that the session must end by May 20. It also mandates lawmakers to pass a budget for two years beginning July 1.
The budget, which faces a $1.1 billion deficit, likely will be more than $35 billion.
A new dynamic is that Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative majorities are all Democratic for the first time in three decades.
Two men who were re-elected Nov. 6 will not be sworn in today. Rep. Terry Morrow, DFL-St. Peter, resigned Monday to take a job out of state. Also, Rep. Steve Gottwalt, R-St. Cloud, leaves after accepting a lobbying job.
Special elections will be held for both seats.
With 24 hours to go before today’s opening ceremony, the Capitol and State Office Building were quiet.
Marquart hosted a meeting as he began preparations to write an education budget and try to reform how education is funded. It was the first time he and Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius met face-to-face since he was named chairman.
Other than an occasional lawmaker setting up an office, things were quiet around the Capitol. However, lawmakers were busy elsewhere later in the day since under state law at noon today they must stop political fundraising until May. They attended several fundraisers Monday and Monday night.
Only formalities are expected today, and little is planned for the rest of the week.
For many, a slow day or two would come in handy. Schoen, for instance, had no assistant or neighbors to help him get settled in.
“I’m still trying to learn how to work this thing,” he said, picking up his telephone receiver.
Senate Majority Leader-elect Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, has said for weeks that lawmakers need to focus on the budget, putting off Democrats who strongly believe in issues such as gun control and gay marriage.
However, incoming House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said last week that lawmakers can do more than one thing at a time, not ruling out many of the issues being discussed.
Marquart said he does not want gun, gays and other social issues to get in the way of budget work. Besides, he said, rural lawmakers may not be able to support some of those causes.
“No doubt those are difficult issues in rural Minnesota,” he said, “and ones we should not focus on.”
Murphy, who beat Marquart as No. 2 leader in the House, refused to say what other issues may arise in the next five months.
“There will be lots of ideas that come to the Legislature via various members,” Murphy said. “Some of them are going to be considered and some of them won’t be considered.”
Among issues expected to be discussed are:
– Taxes. Dayton long has wanted to raise taxes on the rich and is expected to propose that when he releases his budget on Jan. 22. But the governor and lawmakers are expected to look at other changes, too, including ways to slow the rise in property taxes.
– Gay marriage. After Minnesotans rejected putting a gay marriage ban in the state Constitution, same-sex marriage supporters are pressing Democrats who control the Legislature to take the ban out of state law.
– Guns. The December Connecticut school shooting has driven some Democrats to call for stricter gun control, but many Republicans and rural Democrats oppose the move.
– Education. Changing how education is funded is one of the issues being discussed, although a full overhaul probably would involve more money than likely will be available this year.
– Jobs. Every year lawmakers talk about how to improve the job climate, and more talk about that is expected.
– Higher education. State-run colleges and universities have been among institutions to feel the deepest budget cuts in recent years, and there is a move to change that.
– Transportation. Rural and city lawmakers call for more transportation funding, but that probably would involve tax increases that Republicans oppose.
– Labor. Democrats generally support allowing home day care workers and personal care attendants to form unions.
– Medical marijuana. Bakk told reporters last month that he supports a bill that would allow patients to use marijuana for pain control.
– Fracking. Mining sand to be used by oil and natural gas industries for hydraulic fracturing is a controversial topic, especially in southeastern Minnesota. Many lawmakers say they favor some type of regulation, and some want a full moratorium on the mining.